Reflections on a French Holiday.

refelctionsAs I come towards the end of my French holiday it’s perhaps a good time to sit and reflect about France and the French people. I do love the quiet of the French countryside. It seems to me that in the hustle and bustle of the small islands that make up the United Kingdom it is harder than ever to find a little peace and quiet. Perhaps up there in the Scottish Highlands peace can be found, or even in the Lake District but in places like urban Manchester, silence is hard to find.

The French departments, similar I suppose to English counties, date from Napoleonic times and there are ninety six departments in France today which are further subdivided into cantons. Here in the Cher region, to the south of Paris are some lovely rural communities. Still and quiet villages, almost haunting in their silence can be found everywhere.

What I’ve always liked in France is the simple tabac. As the name suggests it’s a place where you can get your tobacco and in some places it is also combined with a presse so you can also pick up a newspaper. One thing you will always find in the tabac though is a bar, similar to the vault of an old English pub where French men chat and drink coffee, sip wine or a pastis. In the village where Liz and I are staying, Germigny l’Exempt, there is a small sell-everything shop, a combination epicerie, depot de pain (the lady owner explained carefully that they are not a boulangerie, but a pain depot) and of course, a bar! An interesting combination. You can imagine the situation if a similar establishment was available in England: The wife happens to mention to the husband, sitting in the lounge watching sport that they are a little short on veggies for the coming Sunday dinner. The husband jumps up; “need some vegetables love? Well, I’ll just nip down to the local shop and get you some!” And have a few beers while he’s there no doubt! Frenchmen, at least those of the rural Cher countryside, are clearly made differently here because I’ve yet to see anyone in that bar!

Last Friday night, Liz and I went down to a nearby town, La Guerche sur l’Aubois, and had a meal out. The only place open appeared to be a rather nice looking pizza place so we went in. There were only two other diners and at the small bar –this was Friday evening remember- were two or three French guys chatting. We had our pizza, had a beer at the bar and by nine pm they were ushering us out! What do the French do ‘au weekend’? I don’t know but it’s certainly not a beer and a pizza! One really nice thing about that bar though, every time a new customer came in, he said hello to all at the bar and shook hands with everyone in turn, including Liz and I, two English strangers. As for eating out though, that is something the rural French do of a lunchtime, not an evening. Shops close in France twelve till two while hungry Frenchmen go to the nearest bistro or restaurant for lunch.

Plat du jour

Plat du jour

At every restaurant or bar serving food you will always see a sign for the ‘plat du jour’ or the dish of the day and one thing I love about French restaurants is their menu deals. You might see something like, for instance, a starter, the plat du jour, and then fromage (cheese) to finish. I do so much prefer small courses to one big meal!

The great thing about France is the wine and my personal rule about French wine is this –buy the cheapest, it’s always the best but then, I like my wine cheap and cheerful. In Intermarche, the Asda of France, you can buy a ten litre box of merlot for about 17 euros, that’s about £13 in UK money, an absolute bargain. Forget expensive French wines, a nice quaffable French red does it for me every time!

Another thing about the French, especially regarding drink. You’d think that France, the country that created brandy would be a haven of cheap brandy, after all, this is where the drink is made! Sadly that isn’t the case, in fact, brandy in France always looks to me to be pretty expensive. However when you come to whisky, a product of Great Britain, there seems to be an incredibly vast choice, far bigger than you would find in the UK. Perhaps the French are a nation of secret whisky drinkers!

Whisky in a french supermarket -and this was only one section!

Whisky in a french supermarket -and this was only one section!

One final observation about the French. We’ve spent many a weekend on this holiday visiting brocantes and vide greniers, flea markets and car boot sales to you and we see so many stalls selling beer bottle tops. Here is a quick flash for any frenchman selling bottle tops; No one is going to buy them! Well, not me at least!

Anyway, as you the reader reads this blog we’ll have left the Cher region and will be motoring serenely across to the Loire for a few days before making our way back to the UK and home. One final reflection about holidays. Why is it that I’ve packed so many things for this trip and used so few? All my clothes were worked out in advance, polo shirts for the fetes and brocontes, smart shorts for being seen in public and scruffy shorts for private use. I also brought along both jeans and trousers, which I have worn exactly once each. Despite all this planning and thought, the fact of the matter is that I have spent most of this holiday in the same scruffy old vest and the same scruffy old pair of shorts. If I’d really thought about it, I could have significantly reduced the amount of clothing and saved some space for . . . more cheap wine!


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Sunday Lunch with My Arch Enemy.

Sunday afternoon and my arch enemy is about to arrive. Zoe, Liz’s daughter has picked him up and I can hear them at the front door. I’ve lit the coal fire and done a quick tidy up and Zoe is showing him through. In the hallway he asks “Is the Mad Monk in?”

quotescover-JPG-43bThat’s me by the way, the Mad Monk.

“Bloody hell Zoe,” I say. “I had that door locked to keep the riff raff out!”

“Stephen,” he says using my Sunday name as he comes into the lounge. “We don’t mind slumming it with the riff-raff. Anyway, how lovely to see you!”

“Always a pleasure to see you, Harry,” I reply.

Harry is just approaching ninety years of age and all his faculties are in order although his memory is perhaps not as good as it used to be.

“Take a seat Harry,” I say. “What can I get you? A glass of water? Lemonade? A cup of tea perhaps?”

Harry turns to Zoe, a fake look of disdain on his face

“Pillock!” he murmurs.

Liz brings him a glass of French sherry..

“That’s more like it,” he says.

The women go off into the kitchen to sort the dinner and Harry and I chat about various things. Once Liz and Zoe come back though, we resume battle.

“Harry went for a brain operation the other day,” I announce, matter of factly. “It was free but they charged him £2000 search fees.”

“Dear me, I wish you’d try some new jokes Stephen,” comments Harry. “If you had a brain you’d be dangerous,”

Over seventy five years ago when war broke out Harry decided the army wasn’t for him so he went on a wireless operators course in Preston then signed up in the merchant navy as a ‘sparks’.

His first voyage took him down through the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf and Iraq. One day while his ship was being refuelled he went for a walk and he heard a voice call his name. He turned to find one of his old schoolmates hailing him. Frank and Harry went to school together, both went to sea and bumped into each other in Basra, along the Shatt-Al-Arab river,  a place Harry called the ‘arsehole of the world.’

Harry had no money on him but his friend Frank treated him to a meal and a few beers and they didn’t see each other until again until Harry’s fiftieth birthday, many years later.

“That doesn’t surprise me Harry,” I say. “That poor fella, having to pay for everything. No wonder he didn’t want to see you again.”

“Stephen. What you don’t realise is how hurtful insinuations like that are to a sensitive man like me.”

“I’ve not noticed your sensitive side Harry.”

“Well, you will in a minute if you don’t top my wine up, garcon!”

The wine is topped up and Liz calls for a ‘skivvy’ to help in the kitchen.

“That’s a good word for you Stephen, skivvy. Off you go and if you do a good job there might be a tip in it for you!”

Atlantic convoys during World War 2 were a lifeline for the UK. Bringing in food and supplies and munitions as we fought alone against the Nazis after the fall of France. U boats were a deadly menace to our ships and Harry told me once how he lay on his bunk shivering with fear during an attack. If a ship went down there was no one to help. Other ships couldn’t stop for survivors as they too might be torpedoed. After a while though Harry told me you just got used to the threat and got on with your job. He told me of trips to the Middle East taking tanks and equipment for the Middle Eastern campaigns. A trip from Argentina to the UK with a cargo of rice. A visit to Rio and a trip to New York.

We eat our Sunday dinner with little let up in the banter. Later when it’s time to go Harry turns to Liz and says “Lovely meal darling.” Then with a wink he says, “pity about the company though.”

So, let me wish you a super ninetieth birthday Harry, and let me give you the toast that you so often give to me,

“May your shadow never grow less.”

When Blogging has to go on the back burner!

IMG_00000349Yes, those are my feet in the picture, and my pool too. Well, my pool for this week:  I’m spending a very lazy week in Portugal with Liz and I was hoping to be knocking out some top notch blogs but, well it hasn’t really happened. The thing is there’s the pool just lying there empty, and someone has to swim in it, so well, I’ve just got to do it. Liz was doing a bit of swimming but I can hardly leave her to do all the work, can I? Of course, there’s also the barbecue ; well, I just can’t leave it sitting there can I? So,  I have to slap a few steaks on it, and then, I can’t have a steak without a glass of wine -obviously not!  So I have to have some wine, of course! Then again, I can hardly have a good glass of wine without any cheese can I? Of course not, I mean, do I look like a Philistine? So there you have it!  Blogging is on the back burner at the moment. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible!

What happens with the cheese -stays with the cheese!

quotescover-JPG-36Not so long ago my team and I had a team night out. It was great for work colleagues to have the chance for a good get together, have a few beers and some food, and talk about things that were UN- work related. It was a pretty good evening, all arranged by me I might add, and the pub I chose for a meeting place was just opposite Manchester’s Chinatown, so when we were all ready it was just a case of popping across the road for our meal.

I was not amused then when the evening was hijacked by one of our group who wanted to go to a tapas bar on the other side of town. To cut a long story short, I had far too much to drink and gave some no holds barred stick to the perpetrator of this infamy, who just so happened to be my boss!

Next week at work I approached my boss meekly with a prepared apology only to be stopped in my tracks.’ Steve’, my boss said, ‘what happens on the night out, stays on the night out!’

Due credit to the boss for his understanding attitude and in a roundabout way that brings me to another thought on this last night of my French holiday :

In previous years, as well as stocking la voiture with French wine, I always used to take back a considerable supply of cheese -not anymore! I’ve come to feel that French cheese, as much as I love it, doesn’t sit well on an English table. Our food doesn’t suit the cheese, and drinking and eating habits change when we get home. So leave your French cheese in France, in a sunny pavement cafe, where you can enjoy it with some French bread and a lovely glass of French red.

Oh well, here’s to l’annee prochaine!

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